I send everyone in Iceland my best wishes and greetings from Austurvöllur Square on our National Day, June 17. We gather on this day beside the statue of [independence movement leader] Jón Sigurðsson to remember those who began and pursued the campaign for national freedom, and to celebrate the achievements that it yielded. The greatest milestones were the restoration of Parliament in 1845, the constitution of 1874, home rule in 1904, sovereignty in 1918 and, finally, the establishment of the Republic in 1944. Jón Sigurðsson lived to see the first two achievements and made a major contribution towards them himself, while home rule and parliamentary democracy were a clear continuation of his policy, and Iceland’s sovereignty was always the objective.
It is our duty to honour Jón Sigurðsson’s memory for the future. Four years from now will be the bicentenary of his birth, which is a worthy occasion to celebrate. Earlier today I issued a remit for a committee delegated with preparations for his bicentenary, following a parliamentary resolution to that effect this spring. Sólveig Pétursdóttir, the former Speaker of Parliament, will chair the committee, whose members represent all parties in Parliament as well as the Hrafnseyri committee [responsible for preservation of Jón Sigurðsson’s birthplace]. I entertain great hopes for the committee’s work and hope that it will set its sights high, as the occasion deserves.
The past few weeks have been an eventful time in Icelandic politics. A general election was held on May 12 and a new coalition Government was subsequently formed, backed by an exceptionally strong majority both in parliament and among the electorate. The larger member of the last coalition, the Independence Party, and the party that was by far the largest in opposition before the election, the Social Democratic Alliance, have joined forces and are now responsible for governing the country. This is of course a turning point. Clashes between these two parties have been a familiar feature of parliamentary activities in recent years, but we have had the good fortune to settle our differences and find angles for cooperation in the coming years.
It is important for every nation to avoid being polarised over crucial issues, but for political parties and people to live in reasonable accord. While it is only natural to move forward through argument – and often heated argument –it can also be fruitful to make concessions over our demands and policies from time to time, find compromises and build up morale. Political debate in Iceland tends to be fiercer than in neighbouring countries, and unnecessarily so in many people’s view. It would be a major step forward if Icelandic politicians relied less on big words. Words must not have been rendered meaningless by the time they are actually needed. And our guiding attitude should be that other people, politicians and everyone else, mean well, so we should respect each other’s viewpoints.
No one who reads the Government’s policy statement should be left in any doubt of the main issues. On the one hand there are sound and responsible economic policies for creating an operational and tax environment for businesses that will encourage growth and progress, and on the other hand social focuses aimed at improving the lot of children, the elderly and the disabled, and promoting equality in all possible areas. The current state of our economy – and its future state, if we act correctly – presents a good opportunity to contribute funds towards social projects that have long called for attention and need to be rectified. The Government has taken the first steps with legislation and resolutions by the recent summer session of Parliament on issues concerning children, the elderly and the disabled.
On this occasion I would like to underline in particular the Government’s goal of bringing Iceland’s educational system up to the highest standard. Education is empowerment, both for individuals and society as a whole. Many tasks need to be addressed, some of them expensive, concerning teaching and no less concerning research. Investment in the educational system is without doubt one of the most profitable investments that can be made, even though its dividends are not paid out at a shareholders’ meeting every year. Good education secures the foundations of the community, creates a platform for equal rights and social maturity among young people and eventually delivers a stronger economy, sounder social services and more diverse culture. In this area, we cannot afford to economise.
The Government in recent times has firmly underlined the value of education in order to boost knowledge, research and innovation. State outlays on university education and scientific research have almost doubled in real terms over the past ten years. We should build up an educational and scientific system that ranks with the best in the world, works closely with business and is capable of responding to rapid changes and leading them. We ought to and want to build powerful bridges between science and business and between science and the government authorities, which increasingly need to base their decisions on scientific expertise. Competitive public funds play a key role in this respect and the Government is eager to make substantial increases in allocations to them, to encourage Icelandic scientists, institutions and companies to team up in ambitious applications for grants for scientific projects and business innovation at an international level.
The Government has also set itself the goal of working towards a broad consensus in society on economic and welfare measures, nature conservation and resource utilisation, and Iceland’s position in the community of nations. These are ambitious goals, but we have all the necessary means for attaining them.
In recent years we have enjoyed a very favourable economic climate. Robust GDP growth has delivered higher disposable income for households, a strong business sector and solid fiscal performance, which has enabled the Treasury virtually to eliminate its debt. With this achievement, Iceland now ranks among the leading nations in terms of living standards and business competitiveness.
Much of this success is explained by our good fortune in taking advantage of the opportunities that globalisation and growing international communication have created for consolidating and diversifying the economy. The old saying remains as true as ever, that people should never keep all their eggs in one basket.
One of the most important tasks to tackle today is the challenges faced by the fisheries sector. As most of you are aware, the Marine Research Institute recently published its report on the state of commercial fish stocks in Icelandic waters and its catch proposals for the coming fishing year. I expect that most people were shocked by the scientists’ assessment and advice.
Enormous streamlining has taken place in the fisheries sector in recent years and business profitability in general has improved. However, disputes arise regularly about how the fisheries should be organised. While I do not intend to play down criticism of the quota system, neither should we forget its benefits or ignore the huge advances that have been made in fisheries sector operations over the past two decades. Scientists say that we have been catching too much. Nonetheless, the most vocal criticism of the current fisheries management system is that the fleet is not allowed to make ever-increasing catches. It is out of the question that a different management system would have restricted catches more than our current one. But we shall not be blind to the fact that the quota system is not perfect, no more than any other system, and doubtless offers various scope for improvement. Many regional communities face difficulties, which is why the Government’s policy statement specifies that a study shall be made of the impact of the quota system on regional development. It is the duty of the Government to assist communities whose economic and social foundation turns fragile, in fisheries or other sectors.
The Government is unanimous in its support for the Minister of Fisheries in carefully examining all sides of the issue – not exclusively the biological aspects – before next year’s quota is decided, in seeking the broadest consensus on the outcome and also in paying particular attention to the most prone communities. It is obvious to everyone that Iceland is now better equipped to withstand setbacks in this area than often before. There is more resilience and we can better afford to take a long-term view and assume burdens now that could ease the situation later. Prudence pays off in the end.
The Government that has now taken office is known as the Þingvellir coalition. It was there [at the ancient assembly site] that the party leaders held talks and the Government’s policy statement was announced, in the Prime Minister’s summer residence by the River Öxará. Those were bright and beautiful days and it was good to work on important issues in the “heart of Iceland”, as the place has been called. The Prime Minister’s Office and Þingvellir Committee have recently been addressing the future development of the ancient assembly site and the whole of the national park. I regard a successful outcome from this work as vital for strengthening awareness of Þingvellir as Iceland’s most important gathering place.
“Up on the outcrops of lava
where Axe River plummets forever
into the Almanna Gorge,
Althing convened every year.”
These words by Jónas Hallgrímsson are so apt that they etch themselves into the consciousness of every Icelander. Appropriately, extensive celebrations have been prepared in Iceland and Copenhagen this year to pay a fitting tribute to the life, poetry and scientific work of Jónas Hallgrímsson, culminating on the bicentenary of the poet’s birth on November 16.
We have also recently been reminded of the viewpoints of the Reverend Tómas Sæmundsson from Breiðabólstaður, one of Jónas Hallgrímsson’s fellow members of the Fjölnir group [which campaigned for Icelandic independence]. He and Jónas were the same age, but Tómas died well before his time in 1841. He was a zealous idealist, “a jewel in character and qualities”, as he was described in an epitaph. Tómas Sæmundsson’s vision of restoring Parliament at Þingvellir did not materialise. The most important factor at work was the actions of Jón Sigurðsson, who saw farther and was more realistic than the Fjölnir group. For that reason, Parliament House stands here in front of us on Austurvöllur Square now, in the heart of the capital. That decision was a blessing. Nonetheless, it would be appropriate for Parliament to have facilities at Þingvellir for its most important meetings, both to underline the most significant issues and to maintain living historical links.
Above all, the prosperity of nations is determined by their ability to look ahead, identify opportunities and systematically take advantage of their knowledge. Cooperation between the business community, scientists, universities, agencies and government authorities is vital, and tomorrow’s tasks should make demands that will test and strengthen scientific skills, while the opportunities that present themselves should be seen as desirable for the business sector to take advantage of.
Thus a “fortunate and bountiful” prospect awaits us, to quote in a broad sense the words written by the great poet Jónas Hallgrímsson. Likewise we cherish and honour Jón Sigurðsson’s message about the importance of education, free trade and, last but not least, an Icelandic nation in a free country.
“Whoever works for his people and land,
trust that each deed from his hand,
every good thing shall support
the lot of those for whom he fought.”
With these words by Jónas Hallgrímsson about Tómas Sæmundsson I wish everyone in Iceland a happy National Day.
Reykjavík, 17th of June 2007